Speech by Secretary of State Torstila at the XV International Sauna Congress: “Sauna Diplomacy; the Finnish Recipe”

Address by Mr. Pertti Torstila, Secretary of State, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, at the XV International Sauna Congress 2010, 27-28 May 2010, Tokyo Dome Hotel.

Check against delivery

“Sauna Diplomacy; the Finnish Recipe”

Foreword: Finnish saunas are not only a commercial but also a diplomatic item of export worldwide. “Sauna Diplomacy”, solving domestic as well as international disputes in the high heat of sauna has been taught for Finnish diplomats for decades.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There are about three million saunas in Finland, more than one for every two of the 5.3 million Finns. And did you know that Finland is a country where there are more saunas than cars? Practically all houses in the rural areas have saunas of their own. It is hard to imagine a Finnish summer cottage by a lake without a sauna. Nowadays there are saunas also in city apartments, and not only in the big ones: you can find a small sauna even in a one-room flat. There are saunas in the premises of many Finnish companies and in public buildings like chanceries, ministries, city halls, schools and hospitals. The Finnish Parliament Building houses a separate wing with sauna facilities. Nokia is another good example. In its headquarters in Espoo, close to Helsinki, Nokia has saunas built for employees visiting the company gym.

Finns carry their saunas with them wherever they go. All the 98 Finnish diplomatic and consular missions in different parts of the world have their own saunas. Our representatives here in Tokyo take pride in their two saunas. The Embassy sauna in Tokyo was the first Finnish sauna built in Japan – but certainly not the last one. I am sure there are many Finnish saunas in today’s Japan and the Japanese guests and friends keep queuing to them.

In 1960 when Japan was preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, the Japanese Olympic Committee and O-giku-kai Construction Committee approached the Finnish Embassy, asking for assistance in the planning of a Sports Palace in the immediate neighborhood of the Olympic Stadium. A central part of this Sports Palace was to be a spa with swimming pools and Finnish saunas.

The Washington Post wrote in March 2010 : “The Diplomatic Finnish Sauna Society of the Finnish Embassy in Washington D.C. counts among its 150 members the operatives who make Washington spin: Capitol Hill staffers, public-policy wonks, lobbyists, administration officials and reporters eager to pick up some off-message analysis.” According to the society’s private Facebook page its mission is “to exchange breaking D.C. news and hot scoops, create buzz and get refreshed in great company.” Similar sauna “academies” can be found in other Finnish embassies too.

The sauna is a place where you wash yourself; it is a place where you can rest and relax. But it serves effectively other purposes as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of Sauna Diplomacy!

Sauna and international crisis management

When Finnish troops are sent overseas in international military or civilian peacekeeping and crisis management operations, they carry the sauna idea with them - even if they served in hottest Africa as is the case now in the UN operation in Chad. When soldiers arrive to set up camp in a foreign location, building a sauna is the first thing to do – it’s a top priority.

Finland has participated in international efforts to end fighting and bring peace for over 50 years now. Peacekeeping forms an essential and visible part of the Finnish foreign policy. It is generally acknowledged that Finland is among the most significant contributors to international peacekeeping. Over 50,000 Finnish men and women have taken part in different missions in Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo, Namibia, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Liberia, Chad and other places. While contributing to bringing peace to the war-torn regions, the Finnish troops have at the same time introduced local people and other peacekeepers to the secrets of the Finnish sauna traditions, including sauna diplomacy.

The Finnish contingent in the UNEF operation in the Sinai Desert in the 1950s built 35 huts to house saunas. The Israelis and Egyptians were astounded – is it really a sauna in this heat? The Finns must be crazy! One of the first saunas was built on a forsaken Egyptian military transport platform using wooden telephone poles which the Israeli forces had left behind. The sauna building was then easy to move from one place to another. A sauna on wheels!

In the Golan Heights in UNIFIL during the 1980s and 1990s the Finnish battalion took care that not only the Finnish troops had their saunas but also the Israeli and Syrian ambassadors had a chance to use one if they wished.

Your guest speaker served as a reserve lieutenant in the UN Forces in Cyprus in 1966-1967. My platoon had saunas and the neighboring platoon had even a swimming pool in a deserted garage.The garage gate was bricked up and filled with water. Peace in Cyprus was negotiated and built in these premises and the saunas were visited by representatives of both sides of the conflict.

In KFOR in Kosovo during the early years of 2000 the Finnish contingent built over 20 saunas in their base for its 800 soldiers and foreign guests. Officers and soldiers knew that the sauna plays an important social role and can help relieve stress in tense environments such as postwar Kosovo.

The Ahtisaari lesson

Sauna diplomacy, diplomatic meetings which involve the sauna helps in making progress in negotiations. President Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2008, has used sauna diplomacy successfully in many parts of the world, from Africa to Asia, from Tanzania to Indonesia.

How does a mediator set about looking for compromises in a situation where the parties are far apart? Especially in the early stages, Ahtisaari says, the most important thing is to just meet and talk, meet and talk. The sauna provides an excellent environment for this.

President Ahtisaari served as Finland’s Ambassador in Tanzania in 1973-1977. The Tanzanian Foreign Minister John Malecela, who later on became Tanzania’s Prime Minister , was a regular visitor in the Ambassador’s sauna.

When Ahtisaari was asked why to have a sauna in Africa where it is hot anyway, he replied: “When you come out of the sauna, the hot air outside feels cool.”

Sauna is a form of social communication. Decisions and negotiations take less time in the high heat. Sauna cools down overexcitement and melts away political differences.

As late as in the 19th century, many Finnish babies were born in a sauna because it was the absolutely cleanest place in the household. The sauna is no more needed or used for this purpose but in the case of the birth of the Republic of Namibia, sauna served its traditional function perfectly well.

“Martti Ahtisaari was the midwife who delivered the baby of Namibia,” the Namibians use to say. Ahtisaari served as the UN Commisioner for Namibia between 1977 and 1981 and was appointed Special Representative of the Secretary General for Namibia in July 1978. Development Minister Toivo ya Toivo - a well known Namibian freedom fighter - was an often seen guest in Martti Ahtisaari’s sauna in Windhoek at the end of the 1970s.

Two months ago Namibia celebrated the 20th Anniversary of its independence. President Ahtisaari was invited to attend the festivities as a special guest of the Namibian Government. I would not be surprised if he went to the sauna of the Finnish Embassy together with the Namibian leaders.

President Tarja Halonen and the woman power

Our current President of the Republic Tarja Halonen has two saunas in her summer residence in Naantali. Being female does not create a sauna problem. In a country where the President is a woman, the majority of the members of the Government are women and 40% of the Members of Parliament are female, sauna diplomacy cannot be a privilege reserved for men only. The rise of women to positions of responsibility and their growing impact in business and politics all over the world make it quite natural that President Halonen does not have to sit alone in her sauna.

President Kekkonen’s sauna legacy

Urho Kekkonen, who served as President of Finland for over twenty-five years, was a firm believer in the sauna’s benefits. It is said that Kekkonen left his guests to steam until a deal had been hammered out. Saturday evenings the President’s sauna was ready to welcome his inner circle, influential personalities in politics, science and cultural life. Kekkonen’s “sauna club” formed a network that provided him with information and conveyed his messages to various stakeholders of the Finnish society.

President Kekkonen used to invite world leaders and other officials to his private sauna at the height of the Cold War. Formal discussions started around a normal negotiating table and were followed by a sauna sitting. New ideas emerged and many of them helped the Finns move towards notable political and economic successes and ultimately Finland becoming “the Nokia Land.”

During the days of the Cold War, the Finnish neutrality between East and West was constantly challenged by the Soviet Union. President Kekkonen used his sauna diplomacy to defend Finland’s integrity and membership in the Western community of nations countering the Soviet efforts. The Financial Times once claimed that Kekkonen sweated his Soviet guests into cooperation in his sauna. The true story is certainly richer in detail than that but the truth remains that the sauna was an important instrument for Kekkonen in building confidence and diffusing the mistrust of our eastern neighbor.

Big issues were negotiated in President Kekkonen’s Tamminiemi sauna. The Finnish membership in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) was explained to the Russian leaders in the presidential sauna. The construction in the 1970s of the Russian town of Kostamus close to the Finnish border by Finnish work force was discussed and prepared on the hot benches of the same sauna.

In 1960, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to Helsinki to attend President Kekkonen’s 60th birthday. The sauna played an important role in the celebrations. The story tells that Kekkonen kept Khrushchev in the sauna until 5 o’clock in the morning. At the end of the visit a communiqué was issued in which the Soviet government expressed its preparedness to support Finland’s desire to integrate and cooperate with the West. A free trade area comprising Finland and seven EFTA countries was created in 1971. The door to Finland’s integration into the western economy was opened with profound political and economic significance.

Khrushchev was later criticized by his own countrymen. The main accusation was that he, a proper communist, had gone naked into a sauna with a capitalist and non-socialist, and that was simply something he should not have done.

In 1978, the Soviet Defence Minister, Marshal Dmitri Ustinov visited Finland with an obvious aim of pulling neutral Finland toward a closer military alliance with the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. Kekkonen naturally invited him to his sauna. When the gentlemen were sitting in the relaxing heat, Ustinov suggested joint maneuvers between the Soviet and Finnish armies. Kekkonen threw more water on the burning hot stones and dismissed the proposal as incompatible with Finland’s neutrality. The President said that there could be other ways of cultivating friendship, such as the presidential sauna and the fact that Finland can take care of itself economically, politically and if necessary even militarily without Soviet help. There was no Soviet rejoinder to the maneuvers idea thereafter.

Kekkonen used to say that it’s easier to openly discuss problems in a sauna. In sauna all are equals. There are no superpowers or minipowers in a sauna, no superiors or servants. You don’t keep your politics up your sleeve when you are not wearing sleeves. If you discuss and agree on something when you are all naked, it’s difficult afterwards not to keep your word. Networking in the nude is an absolutely moral good.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The Finns have their ways of doing things but the concept of a pleasant and enjoyable sweat bath is by no means confined within Finland’s borders. Neither is sauna diplomacy. Pragmatism marked the famous 1997 “no-neckties” summit in Krasnoyarsk between Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The two leaders took a major step forward in the relations between their countries during the two days of sport, sauna and relaxation. The informal sauna summit in eastern Siberia did not solve the land dispute but it changed the frosty diplomatic weather between Japan and Russia.

The Japanese mushiboro, the Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian banya, the Hungarian furdö, the sweat lodge of the Eskimos and American Indians, the Turkish hamam, the temescal of Mexico or the Mongolian hot room are all cousins to the Finnish sauna. They all have their specific characteristics which we, friends of the sauna tradition, all over the world respect and admire.

Sauna diplomacy has become a hallmark of the Finnish diplomacy but nothing prevents others from trying this concept wherever saunas are heated up. The sauna is an ideal place to strike a friendship, come to an agreement and make peace.

Thank you for your attention!

Speeches held by Ministers and the top leadership of the Ministry.